Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel, handled 20% more passenger traffic in the third quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year, its chief executive said Monday, signalling cautious optimism for the ravaged aviation industry.
Yet a full recovery remains years off. More than 86 million people squeezed through the airport before the coronavirus hit in 2019. So far this year, it’s welcomed just 20.7 million, up until October. But CEO Paul Griffiths said the figure still represents a sharp turn in fortunes for the crucial east-west transit hub that was clobbered by the pandemic last year.
“We’re still optimistic for recovery being very strong,” Griffiths told The Associated Press amid the aroma of jet fuel and noise of plane takeoffs at Dubai Air Show, the biennial aviation trade expo that kicked off here on Sunday. “It’s going to be a couple of years, but I hope I’m wrong.” The airport saw 6.7 million passengers over the third quarter, with flights surging 17% between January and September compared to the same period last year. It’s a welcome change from the steady stream of bad news in 2020, when the airport slashed 34% of its staff and mothballed a main terminal as the coronavirus closed borders around the world.
“Growth is returning very strongly,” Griffiths said, citing a 40% spike in bookings last month. The airport is gearing up for flying to rebound for the rest of the year, betting that accelerating vaccinations and relaxing travel curbs will allow Europeans to flee wintry weather for Dubai’s beaches and tourists to visit the giant world’s fair in the city that runs until March.
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Griffiths said confidence also grew with the loosening of travel restrictions from India and Pakistan, which remained the airport’s largest market this quarter and routinely send legions of labourers and visitors to the United Arab Emirates. Airlines are expanding their flying schedules as the US recently welcomed back vaccinated Europeans and India reopened for quarantine-free tourism on Monday.
Still, signs linger that the industry’s worst-ever crisis may not be over. Behind Griffiths, tails of scores of Emirates’ iconic fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s, largely grounded amid the pandemic, loomed at Dubai World Central, the Gulf city’s second airport that went out of use for commercial flights last year.
The Middle East’s biggest carrier, Emirates, reported receiving an additional $681 million from the Dubai government earlier this month, bringing the total cash aid close to $3.8 billion as it posted $1.6 billion in losses for the third quarter.
Yet as demand for long-haul travel picks up and more superjumbo jets fill the skies, the airport’s dedicated A380 terminal, Concourse A, will return to life later this month, Griffiths said.
“We’ve been cash positive throughout the pandemic and not relied on any subsidy from any other entity,” Griffiths added, while acknowledging that the region’s airlines have struggled with the slow return of long-haul and business trips.
Even as virus variants continue to course through inoculated populations and economic recovery remains slanted toward wealthier Western countries with vaccine access limited across Africa and Asia, Griffiths described a torrent of pent-up travel demand after a year and a half of financial pain.
“We’ll see people having the confidence to rush back to travel,” he said. “I don’t think it will be a trickle. It will be a flood.”